Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Relentless Solo

I packed a suitcase for Relentless. The things that would sustain me for twenty four hours of mountain biking.

A suitcase I would unpack, item by item through the long night and into the dawn. Holding up each piece, turning it over, putting it to use.

On the start line I was at least as curious and hopeful as I was nervous. Reminding myself that racing is not something I can just do, it’s the distillation, the essence, of the training I’ve put in.

I kissed Chipps good bye and we were off.

The start was easy, like the rides with mates where I’d race up the climbs. A little awkward on the descents, feeling the weight of the work I’d put in and the journey still to travel, anxious not to blow it in an inadvertent early crash. There have been too many of those this year, one too many moments of inattention. This race would not, must not, include one.

As the afternoon mellowed and the light turned golden, I was skip happy on the climbs and smiling on the way down. Carrying the memories of a summer of riding, of friends and chat and chilled out evenings as I swooped the descents, weaved my way through the woods and swished over pine needle paths.

But there was no chilled out evening this time, as the sky dimmed. There was a chill, the cold bright beams of lights contrasting with the black. Gels and bars to fuel me and the imperative to keep moving. There were memories of dark laps of Cragg Vale in the Calder Valley rain and mist. Pounding the climb on my limit. Over and over. Hard rides. The kind of rides you don’t just do for fun. And now was the time to make them pay their dues. My legs may have burned and my stomach churned but I tapped out the rhythm up the stiffest hills. I breathed in the dark, rasping to the top. And then my lights found me downward ribbons of relief. They flowed, bearing me onwards, sometimes better even than in the daylight.

I carried on. Lap again. With a nod to the night I’d spent phoneless and a little lost making my way from home to Horton in Ribblesdale on the Pennine Bridleway. The night laps blurred together mirroring that lonely ride. I was grateful for the Thursday night pub rides over the last month, reminding me what it is like to ride in the dark after the long days of summer. Checking kit and gauging clothing for warmth.

The course, which had started to dry in the late afternoon became slithery with night damp and I started to take more care as mud slimed over rocks. The dull exhaustion of repeating the Coed y Brenin Enduro course twice reverberated in my mind. Dragging myself round with Chipps, once ‘moderately’ and once ‘fast’ (although my sapped limbs had only been marginally brisker as I urged them on). I didn’t do that course twice with leaden legs to stop now. I pushed myself to ride on.

Breaking through the double figures barrier was encouraging. The course had few moments when I needed to fight my own disbelief that I could ride it. I kept taking on its challenges. 

It took in the end of the fourcross track, sending riders rolling over what would be jumps hit from another angle. I reminded myself of BMXing with the Monday Night Pub ride. No hesitation out of the gates. No hesitation now.

The roots of doom, snaking out of a muddy rut, sometimes outfaced me, but I applauded my own efforts when I succeeded at our showdown.

Leaving the pits every lap, I dreaded the first stony steep climb. Not so much for my legs as for the awful desire to hurl the contents of my stomach and reject the calories I’d carefully ingested. Stroke on stroke I remembered the Kickelhahn. The steep, steep forest path straight out of the back of my parents’ house in Germany. Slippery and stony, entirely permeated by heavy drizzle, I’d conquered it repeatedly in measure for stomach churning measure. Walkers had encouraged me. I could do it again.

And then, with just a few laps to go, Chipps told me that I was being chased. The gap was staying constant but I could not let it diminish. So I dug into all the nights on the turbo. All the stupid repeated intervals. Go as hard as you can for so long. And so long. And so long. 

There were draggy fire road climbs I could take in hand and pound out a rhythm from start to finish. Then stroke, stroke, stroke, up the northshore climbs. And heave and turn into the delicious final climb, up and away, corner by corner, coiling its way from a wide flow trail into singletrack in the woods. No let up. I’d not spent evenings staring at the seconds passing, praying for them to click through the minute barrier with every fibre of my being, whilst I pushed the pedals as fast as I could, for someone to catch me now.

And as the light started to filter upwards through the dark, the task lightened too. The gap wavered with a mechanical, but held. And I rode the last lap on a plan. Every bit practiced nineteen times.

Climb the boardwalk through the woods, heave up the tiny kicker (twenty times and the bastard hadn’t got me yet), metronome my way up the stony path, head down and not looking up as it steepened, just thinking of flying down the rolling pathway beyond. Tickling my way up the next stiff challenge and out onto the fire road that bore me to the top. Remember to look out one last time on the Nevis range, glowing in the light. Remember to smile.

Then head down and focussed on the narrow stony, twisting descents. No false moves, no big risks. A few dabs on the greasy bits but nothing too slowing. Wind back up the singletrack, the boardwalk, the smooth curves of the pine needle path, slither my way round the rooty bit and not let it phase me (a dab doesn’t matter, stopping or crashing does). I could fly down the bowl and up out the other side. Breath slowly over the narrow bridge (a handlebar caught on the handrail would be messy). 

Scrabble round the edge of the car park scrappily, walk the only bit of the course I was prepared to give in to by the end, to the edge of the dual slalom. Right hand held wide off the brake so as not to lose it on the now-sloppy roll in chute. Then over, and out. Once the path turned onto the final climb I was happy. Smooth. Knocking it out. Down that last lovely descent, curvy and swoopy and fast, dipping my bars left and right, skimming the stony patches, shoot down the last steep section, fluttering the final twists, out of the woods. Gone too soon. But into the peace of knowing that another lap. The last lap. Was done.

All those rides wrapped into that one, long day. Rides with friends, rides alone. The whole spring and summer condensed and distilled into one. My baggage unpacked, each piece appreciated. It had served me well.

For twenty four hours I hadn’t asked where I was in the race, because this was about riding. Finding out how far I could go, how high I could climb. The shadows of the other riders crossed my tracks now and again, a chaser chased but I didn't know whether for first or last place. This, absolutely, was my ride, I’d done my 20 laps. 200km. 7,000m of climb. The ride of my life.

second vet woman, third overall
not bad then 

Thank you to Chipps, the best pit crew in the universe (among many things), to Jason Miles for sending me the impossible sounding task lists which packed the suitcase, to everyone who's ridden out with me, put up with me, fed and cheered me on, you are all lovely. 

Thanks also to Scot Nicol for sending the gorgeous Ibis Tranny for testing at Singletrack (I think I've comprehensively checked it over). 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.